Thunderbirds in Welland

You may remember the exhibition at the Grimsby Public Art Gallery that offered a minimal installation of Carl Beam opposite Frederick Hagan, allowing the works to argue back and forth across the wide gallery space; this (Across This Mighty Land being the show title) was fitting, as an early event / exhibition in the Niagara region to mark #Canada150 and all the intersecting and disagreeing narratives around the sesquicentennial.

Right now, at the Welland Museum (140 King Street, Welland, ON) there’s an exhibition within that vein, but also offering a different chapter in that historical, yet contemporary debate. Norval Morrisseau is one of Canada’s most significant artists, often being called “Canada’s Picasso”: but I also feel that when I speak of his work and legacy during #Canada150 I have to cite a conversation that Steve Loft and Andrea Kunard initiated around the exhibition Steeling The Gaze, which was a travelling show from the National Gallery. In that show, Loft and Kunard spoke of how the Indigenous artists resisted – and the curators considered and respected – the idea of not being designated as “Canadian” in the accompanying artist cards. This is notable not just as it was an exhibition of Indigenous artists, and we know, so briefly into #Canada150, that nationality is not a neutral or default term, but also that an institution like the NGC, which has its protocols and practices that are as rigid as a religion, acquiesced to change.

How does this matter, with Norval Morrisseau’s work in the Welland Museum, in the exhibition Our Voices? The descriptor is brief, allowing the art to speak for itself: “Our Voices is a look at the heritage and culture of the First Nations, Métis, Iroquois, and Inuit peoples, featuring the artwork of Norval Morrisseau.”

His paintings are as recognizable — moreso, to be blunt, as I doubt you (or I) could differentiate between a J.E.H. MacDonald and a Frank Johnson, oh faithful reader — as any Group of Seven. I recently acknowledged that his work was among the first of any Canadian (I’ll default Canadian here, in respect, not in hegemonic colonization) artists I encountered as a boy, and that set me on my own path in the Canadian Art world. Further: “One of Morrisseau’s early commissions was for a large mural in the Indians of Canada Pavilion at Expo 67, a revolutionary exhibit voicing the dissatisfaction of the First Nations People of Canada with their social and political situation.”

Morisseau often signed his works in Cree syllabics as “Copper Thunderbrid”, as his pen-name for his Anishinaabe name Miskwaabik Animikii. The image on the PSA for this show is of Morrisseau’s Thunderbird Entity: blues and oranges and purples and yellows blend and challenge the eye, and the abstracted feathers and powerful hooked beak make this a strong choice to represent this show, and attract the viewer.

Morrisseau is acknowledged as not solely the founder of the Woodlawn School of Art, but is arguably its best known proponent.

The thirteen paintings on display in the Welland Museum are installed among objects from the Museum’s own collection, as well as some loaned to them; of note are artifacts from the Museum’s own Metis Gallery. This is the sole permanent display of Métis handiworks in Niagara (hopefully you had a chance to visit the excellent exhibition recently at NAC facilitated by the Niagara Region Métis Council, as part of Celebration of Nations, as a testament to this thriving nation in a local context).

Our Hippie Family with its rich earthy colours and flowing dark lines on a black background features several figures, interacting with each other, oblivious to the viewer. Many of his best loved works are of female archetypes (the recent exhibition in the VISA gallery displayed one of his Virgin Mary images): The Great Earth Mother is a fine example of this, with the goddess less “human” than amorphic, more like an organic Gaia, fluid and shifting, than a more rigid “portrait.”

Loon with Human Face is one of his more totemic works, as his heritage often defined his imagery. Other works are more direct portraiture in his unique style, with colours flatly applied but still vivid and enticing.

This exhibition is on display (Welland Museum asks for a small fee to see it, and it’s well worth it) until 2018. If you had a chance to experience his work during Celebration of Nations, this offers more nuance. If not, this is also a good place to begin to examine who we are and where, and might be, during #Canada150.